The Dunning-Kruger Effect and Dartmouth College

I was recently able to put a name to a behavioral tendency that I’ve long recognized in myself. I was listening to a podcast where the hosts are seasoned endurance athletes (note: I am not such an athlete). One of the hosts began talking about his journey into endurance sports and how, even though he had been quite athletic most of his life, he was stunned by his own underestimation of how difficult and demanding endurance training was. He knew endurance training would demand sacrifice, discipline, and fortitude: as a veteran athlete, it wasn’t the difficulty itself that surprised him. It was his underestimation of what was required and his overestimation of personal performance that truly caught him off guard. This, he shared, was an example of the ever-present Dunning-Kruger Effect. His incompetence lead to overconfidence.

In 1999, psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger embarked on a study comparing how participants viewed their own performances in a series of tests (on grammar, logic, and humor). The results consistently demonstrated that the lowest performers often overestimated their performance: they had an inflated self-assessment when asked to predict their scores. This was evident for the lowest scorers more than any other group. In short, the underperformers displayed a form of cognitive bias that was dangerous because it ended up distorting their self-awareness. The implications of this are many, the most obvious being that overconfidence (while incompetent) can ultimately lead to poor decision-making.

In a 2019 interview with Vox, David Dunning had to make a clear point about his namesake effect: “The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.” Through trial and error, I’ve come to recognize this cognitive bias in myself many times. Whether the subject was physical fitness, politics, market analysis, religion, or public speaking, I found that I usually overestimated my ability to understand (or perform) something if I was untrained in it. This has been especially true in my academic journey, beginning two years ago when I started my undergraduate education at Dartmouth College. I believe this is in large part to the nature of the liberal arts education model that Dartmouth follows. In course after course, sometimes lecture after lecture, what I thought I knew about a subject was consistently proven to be inadequate or even uninformed. When I saw the Dunning-Kruger Effect in myself, I felt an uncomfortable prick to my ego. But I now realize that’s a good thing. After all, recognizing this effect can lead to an intellectual humility and better self-consciousness. And the more conscious I am of my cognitive shortcomings, the more cautious and self-critical I can be in my decision making. Easier said than done—Dunning also stated, “Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition. The problem with it is we see it in other people, and we don’t see it in ourselves”.

I’ve come to believe that great professors, authors, or academic institutions make it a goal to illuminate where students may be unwitting victims of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This has been my experience at Dartmouth, and I would bet money that this is the experience of many of my peers—and this not at all by accident. It is my strong belief that a robust liberal arts education, such as that which Dartmouth champions, fosters such an experience since students are required to take classes in multiple disciplines, where they inevitably are at risk of underperforming if they do not prepare. In this system, students are forced to confront their own ignorance often. What better form of education is there? The more students recognize their own ignorance and biases, the better their education has served them. So, whether you’re a student or soon-to-be student, seek environments that expose your biases and ignorance, however uncomfortable that may be—because that exposure is key to a successful, thorough education.

Written by: Anthony Lenkiewicz